Benji Marshall could hardly believe it, and when he told his mother she was so overwhelmed she cried.
Kiwis rugby league coach Stephen Kearney had just revealed Marshall, the Whakatane whiz, would captain his country for the first time in tomorrow’s World Cup pool match against England here.
The news wasn’t made public until Friday after loose forward Jeremy Smith originally had the (c) beside his name in error in Wednesday’s team release.
Marshall admitted he was stunned, having had no prior warning from Kearney when he informed the team on Wednesday.
“I thought he was joking at first. I was a bit surprised but happy all the same,” Marshall said.
“It’s a great honour and privilege to captain any side, but to captain your country at a World Cup is something special.
“I’ll take the responsibility with both hands. I think I’ve shown good leadership in training and off the field as well. I think I deserve the spot. It’ll be a tough job but I’ll enjoy it.”
He had never captained a senior team before, with his last match as skipper for Keebra Park High School on the Gold Coast after being scouted across the Tasman.
Marshall, 23, rated winning a National Rugby League title with Wests Tigers in 2005 as his previous career highlight, but this would go close to matching it.
The star five-eighth was quick to call his Sydney-based mother Lidia, and younger brothers Jordan and Jeremy with the news.
“It’s definitely up with the highest achievements in my career. I told my family and they were all stoked and proud, even a few tears from the old lady.”
Injury has blighted Marshall’s international career and tomorrow will be just his seventh test.
Going into the World Cup he had played just four of the Kiwis’ 22 previous tests.
But with his shoulder problems seemingly in the past, Marshall strung together matches against Tonga, Australia and Papua New Guinea and showed glimpses of his class in last Saturday’s 48-6 win over PNG before departing at halftime to rest a hamstring twinge.
“Since I heard the news I’ve been pumped and I’m looking for a big one (against England).
“It’s added responsibility, you’re going to have to lead by example, and (it) puts you under the spotlight a bit more.”
Marshall was a dominant figure at first receiver at Wednesday’s training session and will lead a side with five personnel changes against an England team likely to also be reshuffled from last Sunday’s 4-52 loss to the Kangaroos.
But he issued his first stern captain’s look when asked how much importance the `dead rubber’ had with a semifinal looming between the same two sides in Brisbane next week.
“This one’s just as important. Any time you pull on your jumper for your country it’s a big occasion. Anyone who turns up this weekend thinking it’s a muckaround game shouldn’t be playing.”
Kearney said Marshall stood out as a candidate when he decided to rest regular skipper Nathan Cayless, who is battling a knee injury.
While Smith led the side against Tonga, Kearney hoped the responsibility would raise Marshall’s game even higher.
“It’s a wonderful occasion for him. We feel it’ll give him an opportunity to show some real leadership. That’s what we’re after from him,” Kearney said.
The Kiwis are rated $1.70 favourites to win tomorrow by Australian bookmakers to England’s $2.10.
England coach Tony Smith has yet to name his playing 17, with prop Maurie Fa’asavalu (broken finger) and second rower Jon Wilkin (facial injury) ruled out and gifted five-eighth Leon Pryce in doubt with a rib injury.